Almost a third of transport fossil fuels could be replaced with advanced biofuels

Biofuels made from agricultural and forestry waste could be significantly increased to reach a 30% share of the EU’s transport fuel, according to modelling carried out by a Dutch consultancy.

Such an increase would see a major reduction in oil and gas usage in the EU’s cars, ships and planes, helping the bloc to meet its target of a 55% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

Advanced biofuels are largely reliant on leftover waste from other sectors, such as corn husks and nut shells, which has raised questions as to the extent fuel levels can be increased. 

But according to Dr Carlo Hamelinck, a partner with the Dutch consultancy Studio Gear Up, the feedstocks used to create the green fuels are more plentiful than EU policy reflects.

“Advanced biofuels could play a really large role. They exist, they could be scaled up easily, the technology has been developed over the past decades and it is ready to be deployed,” he said, speaking at a EURACTIV event on transport decarbonisation.

“Studies show that the feedstock potential is large. Possibly about a third of the current fossil fuels in transport could be replaced with advanced biofuels. And it could be done fast,” he added.

If the EU was to increase the advanced biofuel mandate in line with the feedstock potential, this could additionally help to reduce energy costs, according to Hamelinck.

“If you would really go to a significant scale [with advanced biofuels], it could have an impact and I think it would calm down the prices. It would give us much more diversity, more fuel sources,” he said.

While feedstocks may be theoretically available to increase advanced biofuel production, at present, the output is considerably lower. The upcoming revision of the Renewable Energy Direction – a key piece of legislation governing the use of biofuels in the bloc – is likely to set only a 2.2% target for advanced biofuels in the EU’s transport energy mix by 2030.

A 5% sub-target was put forward in the European Parliament by the file’s rapporteur, MEP Markus Pieper of the centre-right EPP group, but was watered down after failing to find backing in the committee.

‘Silver-bullet policymaking’

Industry representatives partially blamed EU policymakers for the lack of greater advanced biofuel production, arguing that the EU regulatory landscape is overly complex and that a focus on “silver-bullet policymaking” – where one solution is favoured over others – is a deterrent.

Marko Janhunen, chair of the Advanced Biofuels Coalition LSB and public affairs director with UPM, argued that the frequent revisions of EU legislation make it difficult to set out long-term investment plans, and that complexity is putting off smaller players from entering the market.

“What we need is more than one year that a directive is in place – that’s not the way that we create green growth, that’s not the way that we create investment certainty,” said Janhunen.

“If I go back the 10 years that the Advanced Biofuels Coalition has existed, and if I started counting how many months when we were not in the process of either revising or anticipating the revision of the directive, that wouldn’t leave too many months. And that’s not a positive signal… we need a longer-term view,” he added.

Bernd Küpker, an energy expert with the European Commission, defended the EU’s approach to regulating the biofuels sector, saying that as the situation facing the bloc changes, so too must legislation.

Küpker also sought to reframe accusations that the European Commission has abandoned the principle of technological neutrality by favouring certain technologies, such as electric vehicles, to meet climate aims.

“One needs to have a balanced approach. If you’re completely technology neutral, it means you have no strategy,” he said.

“If there is an understanding on how to achieve carbon neutrality – and it’s clear that it’s not easily done – there needs to be some strategy underlying the policies, in which direction it goes, otherwise there’s not a good case for investments,” he added.

The revised Renewable Energy Directive faces a plenary vote in the European Parliament on 13 September, after which it will be debated with member states.

The full EURACTIV conference “Accelerating energy independence and emission reductions: The role of advanced biofuels in transport” is available to view online.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]